Topics List taken from her interview with Susan Croft, July 2011, in Frant Kent, recorded by Jessica Higgs
Audio extracts edited by Jessica Higgs.
Background, education, the times Born in New York City, Dad in show business, Mum a teacher. Father’s father was Russian and took him there when he was 14, during the Depression to find work. Beth’s dad trained at the Vakhtangov theatre company in Moscow.
Father encouraged Beth to act. At 14 she got a scholarship to the Stratford Shakespeare Academy, Connecticut [which supplemented the annual American Shakespeare Festival]. Real eye-opener – if they went into town the locals were iffy about Shakespeare and would throw pennies at them.
Academy and festival run at the time by legendary producer/director John Houseman and he had wonderful company of actors [including Ed Asner and Will Geer]. Summer programme was annexed to theatre. Trainees learned to fence, speak verse – wonderful introduction to acting. Also used as extras in productions of Midsummer’s Night Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Merry Wives of Windsor, and All’s Well That Ends Well.
Two years earlier Beth had been in a Eastern seaboard touring company producing plays for children, where she made her professional acting debut as ‘Frijole the Bean Sprout.’ After graduating from high school, went first to Bard College, upstate NY, a progressive school, then Hunter College.
Socio-cultural description of the early ’60s in US TV made it possible for young people to know what was happening in the rest of the world. Feeling of transatlantic camaraderie. Alliances being made with Britain and Sweden and other countries. Beatles music ‘hep’ jazz freaks, sense that their parents didn’t get it.
First real generation of teenagers and natural rebellion of that age. Post-war in the US, great relief that there was money at last to spend. Young people allied themselves with their peers and left their parents behind. All these informed the emerging ‘hip’ art.
Greenwich Village at the time: you could walk down the street and meet the likes of Bob Dylan, but with none of the pressures of fame and celebrity.
Bard College known as the ‘Little Red Whorehouse on the Hudson’ which reflected what people thought of that kind of education and intellectual pursuits. Andy Warhol used to frequent The Dom – US equivalent of Working Men’s Club for Polish people. Warhol used this as his stomping ground and established The Factory there to make what he was doing more available.
‘Happenings’ in lofts, little theatres not frequented by or recognised by the establishment. People like [Allen] Ginsberg and Robert Frank, with whom Beth made a film, Me and My Brother about the Orlovsky brothers.
Apart from the Village Voice, reviewers would not venture below 14th Street. Uptown had very little knowledge of what was going on Downtown. An unbounded community. Walking across Manhattan you’d meet maybe 10 people you’d know crossing from one side to the next, and forget where you were going, to join them for a coffee in one of the many diverse neighbourhood coffeehouses etc.
Transferred to Hunter College, one of the University of NYC colleges, which was women only at the time. Fantastic reputation for its theatre, theatre criticism and history of art courses. The woman running the theatre department (Vera Mowry) was the ex-wife of a star from Bonanza [US TV cowboy series], Pernell Roberts and still on good terms with him. She mounted a production of Othello with Beth as Emilia and asked Pernell in to give notes.
Vera would go Off-Off Broadway looking for out of work actors to bring in for productions. One was Neil Flanagan, big with Caffe Cino, and Michael Warren Powell, who at the time was Lanford Wilson’s lover. Wilson came to see Othello. Beth received high praise for her Emilia.
Flash forward to living in the Village trying to become an actress. Working 2 – 3 days a week as she did, you could in those days afford an apartment, food and money to play. Living on 2nd Ave between 3rd and 4th streets.
Worked in a cinema on Bleecker Street among a row of seminal venues at that time – the Bleecker Street cinema, The Bitter End (where Woody Allen started his stand-up) Working at a re-run house ‘The Maidment’, allowed for free entry to other venues in street – sense of community – made to feel sense of belonging, friends, acquaintances you could sleep with, unquestioning alliances.
Meeting Ellen Stewart and La MaMa Walking to work one day and accosted by Lanford Wilson who took her to meet Ellen
Stewart at La MaMa venue in 2ndAvenue above a launderette. First La MaMa venue was in a basement in 9th Street. Stewart was producing a Wilson play The Rimers of Eldritch; Wilson wanted Beth to be in it and Ellen Stewart agreed. Beth played opposite Fred Forrest.
There was already a La MaMa prototype troupe touring in Europe led by Tom O’Horgan. La MaMa had been going for several years and Ellen Stewart wanted to secure funding and had been told she could get a Rockefeller grant if she could get some good reviews.
Couldn’t get press to go to NY venue so went to Europe to get reviews (This was 1965/66).
Ellen Stewart was unexpectedly beautiful and extremely down to earth. She either loved you unreservedly for ever, or didn’t. She believed in her instincts, hardly ever read the plays she produced, and wanted things to happen and to make things happen for people she believed in, and would move heaven and earth to do so.
Best thing that ever happened to Beth Porter, completely changed her life. Allowed her to have experiences and determinations she had never expected to have, including forming the Wherehouse La Mama in London.
The Rimers of Eldritch got very good reviews in Village Voice. Ellen determined to introduced Beth and Fred Forrest to Tom O’Horgan, so cast them in East Bleecker by Jack Micheline, Beth playing a Mexican whore, specifically for him to see them as Ellen wanted to gather a reliable and good troupe together, to get her the grant, wanted new blood and expertise.
Coffee house scene and theatre Performance spaces were emerging such as at Judson Church run by Rev Al Carmines. He was gay and had many gay writer and actor friends whom he let perform their bizarre pieces, in his church. Performances were free.
Places like Caffe Cino which was Italian, owned by Joe Cino, and sold amazing Italian espresso and cannoli. In the middle of the Cino was a tiny stage upon which were performed productions such as Dames at Sea, with Bernadette Peters.
Places like La MaMa. Ellen Stewart was told she couldn’t sell refreshments because she didn’t have a catering licence. So she would pass the hat around and those who contributed could come any time during the week to see the show again (most shows lasted a week). Hot chocolate and instant coffee were served up in cardboard cups. Actors were paid a pittance.
Ellen Stewart was still working for Victor Bijou as a fashion designer for the ‘Miss Ellen’ label. Not allowed out on catwalk as she was Black. Suffered from discrimination.
Recent obituary in The Guardian from Bidisha got it wrong in saying it was tough on her as a woman: Ellen Stewart got cold-shouldered because of her colour, not her gender.
Beth was invited to join troupe to do theatre workshops with Tom O’Horgan. Workshops in basement – Ellen had sewing room next door and lived in an apartment on top.
Ellen Stewart establishing La MaMa The inspiration was to provide a venue so that her ‘brother’ Fred Lights could have his plays produced. He was Black and so no mainstream producers would consider his work.
She had money from her work and could afford to hire the basement space. It was tiny and unkempt but Ellen Stewart saw it full of possibilities – a place where people could come and things could happen.
Early on neighbours reported her to police as running a brothel, seeing a Black woman and white men (playwrights, out-of-work actors) entering the building. She knew nothing about theatre but knew if you did something, it was more fulfilling, rather than sitting around wondering about doing it.
There was enough space for a few in the audience and a bed on stage. There were a series of plays featuring in, on, around and under the bed, therefore – ‘bed plays’! Ellen Stewart learned as she went.
Tom O’Horgan and his work with La MaMa Ellen Stewart kept the basement on when she moved to venue over a launderette. The workshops were doing things that weren’t being done anywhere else at time.
O’Horgan was an innate and trained musician, a self-taught intellectual and knew all sorts of things, had a major collection of musical instruments and could play them all. Mind like a kaleidoscope, constantly changing and astonishing.
His workshop ideas, amongst others, were somewhat inspired by a recent book that had been written on work being done to facilitate autistic children and the theory that autistic children often missed out on crawling stage. When these movements were produced in them by external manipulation it created amazing results.
O’Horgan was interested in non-verbal theatre. Had written operas. Had very eclectic influences and wanted to direct them towards theatre. He believed theatre is what happens in the space between the stage action and the audience.
Working to the European tour so needed to find out about his troupe, their skills and their potentials. His ideas resonated with the aspirations of Ellen Stewart. She had rejected the predictability of verbal theatre, wanted something else to happen. They both looked for plays that lent themselves to that kind of exploration.
With Hair, the potential was not immediately obvious but was realised in Tom O’Horgan’s production – it needed his vision.
He was amazing to work with. It was like working on a collage with him. You had all the different pieces and were looking to see how they might all fit together.
Theatre does what other performance forms, like ballet, can’t do in the way it can draw many disciplines together.
Paul Foster who wrote Tom Paine understood that too. Had been with Stewart from beginning and enthused by this approach.
Europe tour was about to depart and Foster had only written Part 1 of Tom Paine which was done by the Troupe in NY at La MaMa.
In Europe, there was support from Danish author and critic Elsa Gress (important figure in enabling non-establishment theatre in Denmark, where La MaMa had major fan base. Gress provided rehearsal space and room for Foster to work on script for Edinburgh.
Also in their repertory was Futz by Rochelle Owens, about a farmer’s passion for one of his pigs. Beth was initially resistant to O’Horgan’s approach, but soon totally embraced it. He created a mini Greek chorus out of the workshops for this production. Very effective device.
Also Times Square by Leonard Melfi; and Sam Shepard’s Melodrama Play, which was about emerging rock music scene and how people’s relationships might fit in with that; and Chicago another Sam Shepard that had been previously done by La MaMa.
These plays had been done at the Mercury Theatre in London that year too, 1967. By the time they got to Edinburgh Tom Paine was finished and performed at The Church Hill Theatre. The Producers arranged a transfer to the London’s West End at the Vaudeville Theatre, where it was mostly well-received.
Moment in the play where the action stops and the audience is invited to come up on stage and contribute their dialogue in the spirit of Tom Paine – not being passive or restricted.
Celebration of what was going on at time – questioning of orthodox ideas of the time. People loved it.
La MaMa was crossing tours in Europe with Grotowski’s troupe and Living Theatre, but their work was completely different. They were very excited by the work they were doing, knew it was different, believed in it.
The ensemble Tom Paine cast included: Kevin O’Connor playing Tom Paine, John Bakos playing his Reputation, Marilyn Roberts (from the Actors Studio), Mari-Claire Charba (darling of West Village scene, Caffe Cino and in Leonard Melfi’s Birdbath), Michael Warren Powell, Peter Craig, Rob Thirkield, Jerry Cunliffe (who had known O’Horgan from an early age, and a trained musician, Victor Li Pari, Seth Allen, Claris Erickson, and Beth). There were some cast changed on the tour, with Ellen bringing over some actors from New York.
O’Horgan always introduced music to the productions, teaching the actors to play instruments and to sing.
Beth played autoharp in Futz, crumhorn and harpsichord in Tom Paine, Rob Thirkield played the serpent. Authentic instruments used.
Later, Beth Porter and husband Peter Reid appear on cover of Faber edition of Sam Shepard’s Five Plays, as part of the band in Melodrama Play.
Touring Europe. Toured in two minibuses called, Helen and The Star Car. One purchased for them by playwright John Arden. Like many people at time he was impressed by new work they were doing and wanted to support them.
Recalls driving into Hamburg and seeing her picture on publicity throughout the city. The work was getting good reviews in Europe and their reputation preceded them. Rarely put in hotels. Ellen Stewart arranged various places to stay, had a gift of making friends throughout the world who wanted to do favours for her.
Comments on awareness, cultural and political exchanges going on internationally at time. Everything possible then. Now such potentials aren’t economically viable and easy for politicians to pursue policies of control.
Edinburgh Festival 1967. La MaMa company performed 4 plays at Barrie Halls (no longer exists). Festival very small then and you could see everyone else’s work and they, yours. They got lots of attention especially through Futz.
People met at, relaxed at The Traverse. Upstairs was a cabaret space where Bettina Jonic (John Calder’s wife) was performing a late night cabaret called U. The Scaffold were there, poet Adrian Henri, musician Andy Roberts. Place you could let your hair down.
Working there was Peter Reid who later became Beth Porter’s husband. Reid had trained as an architect and was working at Traverse to earn some money, was also an instinctive musician, which delighted Tom.
Company moved to London and the Vaudeville and in time had to return to London. Reid joined the troupe and moved to NY with them. He became O’Horgan’s assistant and participated in some productions.
Return to New York and back to Europe. Troupe returned to NY in the winter of 1968 and Ellen Stewart had booked them to perform in St Croix in the open air where it was tropical. Performing Futz to the horrified local audience. Time of post-trauma of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations.
One day Peter and Beth witnessed a sniper attack down local street. Description of crush in subways where it would be easy to kill someone undetected.
The Troupe performed at La MaMa and transferred Tom Paine to Stage 73 Off Broadway, and Futz to the Cherry Lane.
Ellen had secured funding and was busy buying the present day La MaMa theatre on 4th Street off 2nd Avenue. She also had arranged with Brandeis University to let La MaMa present an international theatre festival, including Megan Terry’s Massachusetts Trust, that coming summer.
Tom O’Horgan was working on a new ‘concept’ piece called Changes for the Troupe with Viet Rock playwright Megan Terry. Changes was inspired by ideas taken from ancient Egyptian theatre, traveling around with audience visiting and performing at religious sites.
They found an empty building and each floor/room represented a life experience. Audience attended one at a time. First thing that happened was they were given a toga to wear over their own clothes and a unisex name which was used for them throughout the performance.
As they went on their journey they were confronted with life experiences – birth, love, death etc. Informed by Happenings.
Wherehouse did a television version of it later for NOS-TV in Holland.
Prior to company going up to Brandeis University Beth became very ill and had to stay behind in NY where she was cared for by Harvey Milk and his then partner, Jack (aka Galen) McKinley.
Beth thinks that Ellen would have liked to return annually to Brandeis, but the times had already moved on from ideas of festivals presenting work challenging the establishment. Beth was not in Massachusetts Trust but became Tom O’Horgan’s rehearsal assistant, and the work with him made it possible for her and Peter Reid to return to England and set up their own company.
Peter was homesick and quite affected by the sniper shootings. They approached Ellen to say they would like to set up a La MaMa company in Europe. They didn’t want it to be London-based as they wanted to be a touring company – gypsy-like – and had good contacts.
Didn’t want a director as Tom O’Horgan would be irreplaceable, and they wanted to be a creative collective. Ellen agreed but said they couldn’t take the La MaMa label until they had proved themselves.
They joined forces with colleague Tony Sibbald whom they had met at Brandeis with Max Stafford-Clark’s company that included Francesca Annis. Max had attended La MaMa workshops and took notes on their methods of work.
Back in London and opening of Hair. Beth Porter, Peter Reid and Tom O’Horgan all shared a flat in Half Moon Street while O’Horgan was rehearsing Hair for Shaftesbury Theatre.
Beth ran some rehearsal workshops for the cast, as did Victor Spinetti. Got to know Spinetti and was invited to his parties and became part of that London scene. Sense of community.
Tom O’Horgan had organised a special opening event for Hair in New York with all the La MaMa people, which included Rudolf Nureyev and wanted to have a special event in London for the opening there. Got his assistant (possibly Cameron Mackintosh) to hire some kind of flamboyant highwaymen cloaks and hats as dress for Beth, Peter Reid and Tony Sibbald to wear at opening night, where a box had been reserved for them. At end of Act One when company come on naked, the three in the Box dropped their clothes and a light was shone on them. In the next box, Bill Oddie did a triple-take.
New company beginnings and first pieces. They were making their own kind of theatre and looking for a place to do it in. Beth rang around people she had met from year before, all very encouraging and helpful.
Jim Haynes had recently opened the Arts Lab in Drury Lane and let them work in it for free. Developed work there and did their first presentation, an evening of Works in Progress.
Other companies around at Arts Lab – Portable Theatre, People Show Wherehouse company at time included: Stephen Rea, Dinah Stabb, Maurice Colbourne, Neil Johnston, Tony Sibbald, Peter Reid & Beth.
Extra workshop participants included members of the Hair cast, Victor Spinetti, former actress Liz Lynne, now Lib-Dem MEP, Nancy Meckler, Tim Thomas and Hugh Portnow, who wrote the music for Rainbow (later they went on to form Tell Tale Group). Hugh also joined the company. Meckler had come over from States; she’d been a Stage Manager on a number of La MaMa shows. Ambitious director. Wherehouse didn’t want a director, but said she could observe and take part in workshops.
Got good reviews from first presentation at Arts Lab. Included Street Piece, evolved out of workshop exercise walking at geometrical angles and choosing or not to encounter, verbally or not, the person you met at the corner of your turning. Very evocative, about urban life.
Also the witches scene from Macbeth in a Tom O’Horgan way, involving strange cacophony of sounds, using varying numbers of witches.
A final piece, Mr Jello, had been given to them by Ellen and was by George Birimisa. He had been awarded some grant money to come over and work with them in London in rehearsals. It was about the disappointments of personal relationships. Funny, weird and liberating for actors.
Worked without director, trying to put into practise what they had learnt from O’Horgan. Also performed at The Crypt, Lancaster Rd, W11, a community arts centre. More funky than the Arts Lab, less expected of it, available for community rather than a place of destination, which Arts Lab was.
Ellen Stewart was supporting them financially, plus box office. Not a lot of money about but first 10% of anything went towards admin, props etc and rest divided equally amongst everyone.
Wherehouse La MaMa Film of Futz was getting underway in the States (1968), from the La MaMa stage production, produced by [Alan Stroh and Ben Shapiro].
Because of reviews Ellen now had allowed the UK company to take name of The Wherehouse La MaMa. Its patrons were Ellen, Tom, Peter Shaffer, Victor Spinetti, James Mossman.
The name was ‘because we may be looking for a warehouse to work in and we’re where it’s at’ (Peter Reid quote). Didn’t want to be called London La MaMa as they wanted to tour and not just be associated with London.
Beth had to fly out for filming of Futz. Before she left some actors had complained about the way Nancy Meckler had been treating them. On return from California Beth arrived at usual rehearsal space to find that Nancy had taken over the company rehearsals, saying that Beth couldn’t expect to be just slotted back in after having left for shoot.
Beth consulted Ellen who said Nancy couldn’t take the company name or performance commitments, so Nancy left with some of the actors to form Freehold.
Beth corrects wrongful attribution (by Peter Ansorge in Disrupting the Spectacle) of play called Alternatives to Wherehouse La MaMa – it was Freehold. Problems of continuing misattribution and confused histories.
Wherehouse tours in Europe had already been booked, festivals, publicity sent out. Wherehouse once performed at Ronnie Scott’s. Link through working on same bill as John Dankworth and Cleo Laine at The Belfast Festival. After Ronnie Scott’s moved to Frith Street they had a rehearsal space in Gerard Street which they hired out, and that’s where Wherehouse presented Street Pieces and Macbeth’s Witches.
Wherehouse La MaMa continued giving workshops and performances at Brighton Combination, the Oval House, student common rooms, and other UK and European venues and festivals including at Alnwick Castle, and the Gulbenkian at Canterbury. They played at The Mickery, outside Amsterdam, and similar small venues in Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Beth and Pete had regrouped with Cindy Oswin, David Bonnar, Roy Martin, Dave Webster and his partner, Jean Michaelson. Neil Hornick joined them a little later, along with several others.
New Shows. They were evolving Group Juice which was a little like Changes, except audience didn’t go through one at a time. Very physical piece. Tended not write things down so hardly any scripts around – ‘We present it, you see it, good bye!’
Group Juice – you came into the theatre and actors were all standing around talking. They then formed themselves into a line and audience members were invited to stand by whichever actor they wanted to – no real criteria. Actor with longest line of people became piece’s protagonist. Every actor could play any part.
It was like a journey through life – birth, education, army training & action, death etc Non-intellectual, very physical, startling in that nothing else like it was being done at that time.
In rehearsal they would take turns in being the ‘eye’, standing outside to shape action. This brought particular cohesion and company feel to the work. Largely critically well-received, took it on tour and to festivals.
Another piece was called Hilton Keen Blow Your Chances Top of the Heap Golden Personality Show of the Week. This evolved because Neil Hornick – who had an academic background (interested in psychology and psychosexuality) – had read a book on self-mutilation or body mutilation.
At the time they were all disappointed in British TV in general as it seemed to be influenced by US commercialism of entertainment where quiz shows were placing monetary value on knowledge. Wherehouse took idea to comic extreme but shocking – in the format of a television quiz and talent show.
The show’s MC was called Hilton Keen (Roy Martin) in a glitzy tuxedo, and his lovely assistant (Jean Michaelson) who, like Jean the actress, was heavily pregnant. [at the time television never showed pregnant women]
Speaks about Roy Martin who at one time had been romantically involved with Angie Bowie, later writing a track with her. Not the kind of person you’d expect to find in such a company. He was often unsure about their working processes but once committed was excellent. He had a fab sense of humour which drove a lot of their work.
More description of Hilton Keen show acts. At end of each act applauded by audience. Used APPLAUD signs Ã la recording studio. Pete came into audience as drugs cop to root out drugs and encounters Beth, planted as volunteer, and planted with drugs. The work with Tom O’Horgan left them physically agile and nifty, and the routine with Pete morphed into acrobatic act.
There was a musical talent act with the Royal Family, dressed in costumes and masks – saxophone-playing corgi.
A ‘Memory Man’ act saw a contestant securely enclosed in a booth, answering questions. If he got a question wrong gas was piped into booth. Final question is how many Jews were killed in the war. Began with ‘300?’, gas poured in. Tries again, every time he got it wrong more gas used until the man is dead.
‘Mr and Mrs Wonderful’ was a kind of couples jeopardy act, played by Neil Hornick and Cindy Oswin.
One disturbing act referred back to Neil’s original article inspiration: Act was called Body Man. A man comes to the show every week to answer questions. If he gets one right he can choose to have a body part removed and replaced with a gold replica – but if he answers wrongly, he dies. So he comes in with various parts already missing, and asks to have his tongue removed which is done on stage.
Beth featured in a ventriloquist act as a dumb-blonde dolly bird on Hilton Keen’s lap. She also played radical psychiatrist ‘Doctor Hilda Schilde’ in thigh-length boots and suspenders. She administers electric shocks to her patient Dave Webster when he misbehaves.
These were the ‘acts’ that theatre critic Irving Wardle of The Times thought were fantastic and nominated Beth as most promising actress of the year.
Wherehouse performed Hilton Keen at London’s The Place through contact with Martha Graham dancer, Bob Cohan, and the fact that Pete had designed the original seating for venue.
Keen also featured at the Newcastle Festival, Edinburgh and on tour in Europe. People and critics loved it, except for described objection from a group in Brussels who accused them of being anti-Semitic, despite 3 of the company being Jewish.
People who saw the show would ring up and invite the company to come to their festivals. Beth would negotiate on the phone asking for costs to cover travel, board, food and company wages which had to be in cash as they had no bank account.
Hump, after David Benedictus. Beth and Pete had met David Benedictus, seen the film of his first novel (You’re A Big Boy Now) and loved it. They felt his book Hump or Bone By Bone Alive would provide good raw material for a new show.
Hump performed in Paris and at St George’s in the East church. It’s about a hunchback dwarf who can maybe do levitation. Some very funny scenes, some in book, some not. Actors took turns in playing lead character ‘Hump.’
Went to famous 1960s Army surplus store called Lawrence Corner, Euston Road and bought some large, long sleeved, button up overalls. They sewed velcro strips to the back upon which could be stuck a multi-coloured cushion, the hump, to indicate which actor was playing ‘Hump.’ Went to a magic shop near the British Museum to get some levitation tricks to use in show.
Story concerns castigation and abuse of ‘Hump’ and his eventual redemption.
Dave Webster designed and constructed a character called ‘Real Woman’: a big structure which when in place could contain the 3 actresses in the company. There were holes in the nipples, belly button, genitals of the structure through which they would push objects – appropriate or not.
The production featured the hysterically funny ‘Plank act’. A plank was placed on the ground and they would do various tricks on it normally done in the air. At end of each trick, they would do a ‘Ta-dah!’ and incite applause and cheering from audience.
When audience first entered they were filtered before arriving at performance area, standing only, no seating. Lights came up and down on various performance areas and audience would gravitate to the spots because of the lighting. [This was long before brilliant French director Ariane Mnouchkine mounted a similar production style in Paris with 1789]
Company workings, funding and BBC work. Pete and Beth lived in flat in Kilburn. Rehearsed in a scout hall opposite. There was a benefit at the Roundhouse before their European tour of 1970, with such luminaries as John Cleese and jazz trio Lambert Hendricks and Ross on the bill. [with compere John Peel]
Bought an ambulance with proceeds which they converted into their touring van. Quote from Dutch critic: ‘The company travel around in an ambulance which is fitting as they are the cure.’
One of the first alternative companies to get funding from the Arts Council. Met Lord Goodman at the Arts Council when applying for a small grant [£1500] which they got. [and which was renewed – a fortune back then!]
At same time the BBC rang to ask them to do some television work. Links with the BBC via playwright/critic Frank Marcus, and producers Michael Cole and Anne Head. BBC quite good at responding to current trends. Asked Wherehouse to devise a show giving them an empty studio with four colour cameras.
Company took the idea of Group Juice and developed it something called Programme, about how people are ‘programmed’ by the expectations of society.
Also did a pilot for kids called Does Your Mother Know You’re Watching? which was sadly never broadcast. Both tapes wiped by BBC.
Arts Council funding – discussion about how different things are now in terms of funding and getting work
Anecdote of schism between Ellen and Tom O’Horgan. He forms the New Troupe, aided and abetted by Elsa Gress in Denmark.
Susan asks question about the ‘Wherehouse company’ in East End who did shows later – no connection with Wherehouse La MaMa. Possibly some connection via Rob Mitchell from Half Moon with Beth’s company, possibly doing workshops [See Note below]
Wherehouse La MaMa in New York, finishing the company and beyond. Ellen Stewart invited Wherehouse La MaMa to New York, but before that she paid for, in London, the production of La MaMa playwright Billy Hoffman’s play XX XXX, subtitled A Nativity Play, which they performed at the Open Space.
Production created an outrage which Beth compares to that of Lee Stewart’s Jerry Springer, the Opera. Critic Harold Hobson hated it so much he suggested the Arts Council remove their funding from the company.
Falling out with Thelma Holt [at Open Space] who refused to pay them. Uneasy relationship of Charles Marowitz with La MaMa who didn’t seem to understand their work.
Wherehouse went to NY where Ellen was presenting a rotation of other companies in NY at La MaMa. This included Theatre of the Ridiculous directed by John Vaccaro. Ellen wanted Wherehouse to ally with him in a presentation of a Kenneth Bernard play called The Monkeys of The Organ Grinder, alongside the other pieces they had been working on.
Paddy Swanson was in company by then and Tony Aitken. This was in late 1970, and they remained for a few months, presenting workshops.
Move to Scotland and return to London Peter Reid was again very homesick for Scotland. His relationship to the theatre, identity crisis. They were no longer the ‘darlings’ maybe, a time to change direction. Early 1972 Pete and Beth moved to Scotland where she wrote, played piano and made scotch eggs and he worked for Forestry Commission. In theory it was idyllic (Ayrshire) until you actually lived there.
Before long they realised they needed to come back to London and Contacted Bob Cohan at The Place who was then buying up properties, doing them up, and selling them on. For a time Pete worked with him converting the properties. Beth looked into getting back into acting in a different way – i.e. not with another company.
First TV was with Leonard Rossiter in a Peter Everett play The Baby’s Name Being Kitchener for BBC’s 30-Minute Theatre. Set in 1800s; also in cast was Margaret Courtenay. Then a Peter Nichols play Chez Nous in West End with Albert Finney. Cast in the film The Great Gatsby (1974), had a long affair with director Jack Clayton.
Marriage to Peter Reid ended. Section about what happened to Pete after splitting with Beth, how she got back in touch through a coincidence, leading up to their seeing each other in Scotland when he was dying with cancer aged 49.
Film acting and North American Committee (Equity) Finding it harder to get work – foreigner, older, people no longer knew who she was etc Work on Chez Nous (6 months) came after The Great Gatsby; Miriam Brickman put her up for casting in Woody Allen’s Love and Death.
Story of having met Woody when working in Bleecker Street and description of audition with him for Love and Death which she got [playing his sister-in-law Anna].
Hollywood at that time making a lot of films in the UK because it was cheaper. Came to realise how the casting people didn’t like employing US actors resident in UK, as they deemed them inferior. US actors came over, were paid more and had royalty-based contracts.
She and some others approached British Equity about this and caused quite a fuss. No reciprocity agreement with Screen Actors’ Guild. This culminated in the creation of the North American Committee with Equity which could advise the Board to advise the Union to advise the Home Office re-issuing temporary passes for those working in the UK.
Detail of all of the above. North American Committee no longer exists but became very influential at the time.
She was working on Rock Follies 2 playing the trio’s manager Kitty Schreiber at time. Beth got targeted as a trouble-maker for her Equity activism because she was well-known. Was picking up a lot of voice-over, lip syncing work, including voicing a cooking series in Switzerland with Victor Spinetti, and Honky Tonk Freeway voices, with John Ratzenberger, and on Superman films.
Acting work was proving more elusive which she in part knows was to do with casting directors bad-mouthing her after the Equity saga. She began to look around for other work outlets.
Getting in to Journalism and then Script-editing When Beth was 14 and at Horace Greeley High School she won a newspaper contest for local paper, part of a publishing syndicate. Paper called The Patent Trader part of influential Macy chain of newspapers. Journalist was leaving and Beth asked to replace her. Paid by column, name in print and seen all over county.
At Hunter College there was a university paper, called The Hunter Arrow, for which she became features editor. Sent out into Manhattan interviewing people and loved it.
When UK acting opportunities were trailing off, Beth got back in touch with New York contacts, including Kevin Lally who was managing editor of Film Journal International which was aimed specifically at distributors and exhibitors.
She also learnt from Jack Clayton how things worked in the film industry. And She had worked with Barbra Streisand for 10 months as understudy on Yentl.
This was Streisand’s first film as director and she wanted an actor to play through the scenes whilst she set up the shots. This was unusual in that most often actors are used as ‘stand-ins’ only to match shot set-ups for lighting – not for acting.
Being in this position Beth learnt a lot about the process of film making, the industry, and its operations. Beth decided to give up acting rather than be resentful about not getting the work she would like.
Started an affair with writer Kerry Crabbe who introduced to various people, including theatre director Nick Kent, who hired her as script reader. She also typed up and read Kerry Crabbe’s scripts. Had done similar work, reading for Tom O’Horgan who was dyslexic.
Reading like this gives a different perspective on understanding of play from the one you get when studying a play/role as an actor.
BBC announced a training programme for script editors from drama, who would eventually become producers and Beth got a place. But had to re-locate to Pebble Mill in Birmingham, which was hard as she and Kerry had just bought a flat in London. Learnt a lot, including from head of drama department at time – Robin Midgley.
They were producing single plays, series and studio plays. She script-edited in all categories. Finally commissioned and produced The Husband, The Wife, and The Stranger, an Adrian Henri three-hander studio drama. She hired the director and cast Adam Faith and Derek O’Connor in the lead roles.
Particularly interested in what you could do with studio plays – due to her work in Rock Follies and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. She was getting into the way you could manipulate screen images, like a collage, harking back to her college days.
Very excited by the possibilities opened up through electronic developments, although others, especially writers seemed not to be at that point, though this changed in time.
It brought her back to dramatic approaches Tom O’Horgan took, how to make a work visually and viscerally more alive beyond the normal bounds of story telling.
Finished with Kerry Crabbe – history of failed relationships
She moved back to London and had chance to become the London editor of Film Journal International.
At same time began doing indie work with Paravision, run by Linda Agren who had worked for Verity Lambert when at film studio in Soho. Agren became producer shepherding and developing series of ‘twists in the tail’ scripts. Hired Beth to get in writers for it. Money didn’t come through for series in end so it didn’t happen.
Beth was taken on by BBC TV Drama series as Executive for script development, following similar work with an indie company in Spain developing a series set in space.
Women in Film and Television Women in Film and Television was not a campaigning organisation then. Linda Agren had been involved starting it with a lot of women in the Industry, some Beth knew, others not.
Structure followed US model, which was also non-campaigning basically, although might do some campaigning work from time to time. In US run by rich women who want social life outside business environment & can afford to do it.
No money in Britain to do same. And women not taken seriously in Industry in Britain. In early 1990s Beth invited to big inter-departmental meeting at Beeb where everyone agreed that women should have equal representation, but Anna Ford saying at end ‘I look around and am wondering who of you [the men] is going to stand down to let us take your place.’
British thing that: saying one thing and nothing gets done: delaying tactics.
Computing and website producing Left BBC. In 1987 became enamoured of computers, pre-internet. Fascinated by their possibilities which seem endless.
Beth attracted by the community of people that it attracts. Joined user group where you got free floppy discs with games. Cute games, [not like now] where if you killed someone they were a cartoon.
If you had a problem others pleased to help. Volunteered to work on stands at exhibitions. Still plugged into show business through Film Journal International.
Met colleague working in TV documentary side who was about to join company set up to make corporate websites. They were looking to model them on structures from TV, which was appealing model as it gave a cohesive vision that could someone could translate to computer designers and programmers.
Beth became an Executive Producer of International Websites. Her first big project was for Boots the Chemist. Company also made sites for Manchester United, Volkswagen and Sky amongst others.
Most clients came from advertising companies that were part of big global companies. She was learning in a way people and very few women get a chance to. Got invited to give a lecture at Shell International – her, a kid from Brooklyn!
Asked to be on Government panels, commissioned to write a book [The Net Effect, 2001], and wrote monthly column for some web magazines.
Attempt to get women involved early on but since then, fewer and fewer women in the industry. Company she was working for taken over by US company.
Invited to be part of a new consortium of people in the Industry trying to codify some standards, and part of that participation was based at U of West of England, in Bristol where she moved in 1997.
Had to give up the film journalism as she couldn’t get to the press screenings: as Editor got to 4-6 screenings per week, during Festivals, 3-5 a day.
Then had some health problems, now living in Frant, Kent. Building websites, not for money.
Has also written columns for The Morning Star: first of all using recent film releases as springboard to write comment on contemporary life, then asked to do more features stuff.
Also built and ran a site called ‘The Story Cellar’ that is for people to offer new writing, especially short stories. Working alongside someone else on this. Publishing has gone the same way as the music industry and other arts where there is only interest in money and not in what is being produced.
Story Cellar provides a space for short story writers, often marginalised.
Web is about possibilities
Vital importance of interactivity, and about it being a sharing activity, cf. theatre. Has come full circle in some ways
Slowly developing a Wherehouse La MaMa website, trying to make it as funky as the era was.
NB Beth knows nothing about another Wherehouse company which allegedly appeared in a show in 1979 in The East End Festival called “@*&/?” nor of any references to a Wherehouse Bengali Drama Group.
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